Legislators propose industrial hemp for Maui

Rep. Cynthia Thielen takes part in the first harvest of industrial hemp at the University of Hawai‘i's research plot in Waimanalo last summer – courtesy of Cory Lum
Rep. Cynthia Thielen takes part in the first harvest of industrial hemp at the University of Hawai‘i’s research plot in Waimanalo last summer – courtesy of Cory Lum

As Hawai‘i’s last sugar plantation closes at the end of the year, state Rep. Cynthia Thielen (R-Kailua-Kāne‘ohe) and Rep. Kaniela Ing (D-Kihei-Wailea-Makena) are crossing generational and political boundaries in their proposal to reform Hawai‘i Commercial & Sugar Company’s (HC&S’s) cash crop from sugar to industrial hemp.

The introduced bill would legalize a crop that is considered a controlled substance and outlawed by the federal government.

After a $30 million operating loss in 2015, Alexander & Baldwin (A&B), HC&S’s parent company, predicts continued losses in 2016, according to Stanley Kuriyama, A&B executive chairman. The sugarcane industry in Hawai‘i has been declining for decades due to the demand for land as tourism expands. A&B is looking at new agricultural alternatives that will keep the land productive.

“Coupled with direct severance and training assistance, this could save hundreds of plantation jobs on Maui,” Ing said.

Hemp, like marijuana, comes from the cannabis plant, Cannabis sativa. But hemp, also called “industrial

A hemp industry in Hawai‘i could involve the production of hemp-based products at the level of local farms and small businesses – courtesy of Cannabis Magazine
A hemp industry in Hawai‘i could involve the production of hemp-based products at the level of local farms and small businesses – courtesy of Cannabis Magazine

hemp,” is an agricultural crop (like feed, fiber and oil) that requires different cultivation practices than marijuana and has low levels of THC (delta-9 tetrahydrocannabinol), the chemical that produces the psychoactive high.

Marijuana refers to the flowering tops and leaves of the psychoactive cannabis varieties that are grown for their high content of THC. THC levels for marijuana are reported to range from 10 to 30 percent, according to the Congressional Research Service’s report Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity. THC levels for hemp are generally less than 1 percent.

Some studies also claim that industrial hemp has higher levels of cannabidiol (CBD), the non-psychoactive part of marijuana, which has shown to reduce the psychoactive effects of THC.

From the 1600s to the 1890s, the domestic production of hemp was encouraged for the production of rope, sails and clothing, according to the PBS Frontline program Marijuana Timeline.

The abuse of marijuana led to its bad reputation and the cult classic Reefer Madness, an American propaganda film produced in 1936 to warn parents that their children would become violent criminals after trying marijuana. Hemp’s approval in the community was demonized by its close relationship to cannabis.

Despite the fact that hemp cannot produce a high, in 1973, the federal government made all strains of cannabis illegal and classified it as a Substance I drug, which is defined in the Controlled Substance Act as a substance that has no accepted medical uses and has a high potential for abuse.

The University of Hawai‘i was allowed to grow hemp for research purposes under the federal Agricultural Act of 2014 and began test trials in April 2015. The research facility is located in Waimanalo and houses three varieties of hemp: temperate zone hemp, tropical seed hemp and tropical fiber hemp.

The tropical fiber hemp flourished and grew over 10 feet tall during its 15-week crop cycle. The tropical seed hemp was much shorter but heavily produced seed. And the temperate seed hemp flowered and died after eight weeks.

“There is much to learn about the performance of hemp cultivation in our tropical climate,” said Rick Volner, HC&S general manager.

Thielen has been a strong advocate for hemp for two decades and points out that Kentucky has been using a similar approach to allow commercial hemp farming since 2013. By 2014, 20 farmers in Kentucky grew more than 33 acres of hemp.

“It is unclear what conditions the federal and state laws allow (for) the cultivation of industrial hemp, but we are pursuing legal interpretations,” Volner said. “Once we are assured the activity is legal, we stand ready to begin trial planting at HC&S.”

Ing’s Facebook post about his and Thielen’s proposal has gained popularity in the Maui community. “I’ve been saying for years that hemp would be a perfect replacement,” commented Brian Pfeiffer, a supporter of industrial hemp. “It’s so versatile, easy to grow, requires less water, no burning and will keep people employed.”

“Because of the 25,000 products that hemp can be transformed into, none of the plant is wasted,” Thielen said. “Hemp is the most valuable crop for farmers, second to tobacco.”

According to Senate Bill 411, which authorized the industrial hemp research program at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, industrial hemp has a great potential for manufacturing products such as hemp oil for humans, feed for livestock and hemp fiber for clothing and building materials.

The State will also benefit from phytoremediation research, which is the environmentally-friendly use of plants to remove toxins in the soil such as metals and pesticides.

“The crop itself can restore nutrients to the soil that it’s on,” Ing said. “The former sugar land that has been taking such a pounding from all the pesticides, that is now quite barren, can be restored.”

Thielen’s favorite potential use for hemp is hempcrete, a lightweight insulating material weighing about an eighth of the weight of concrete that is fire and termite-resistant and can be used as an alternative to drywall.

The Hemp Industries Association estimates that the total U.S. retail value of hemp products in 2013 was $581 million, which includes food and body products, clothing, auto parts, building materials and other products.

Currently, hemp is imported from approximately 30 countries in Europe, Asia and North and South America, with China being the single largest supplier of U.S. imports of raw and processed hemp fiber, according to Hemp as an Agricultural Commodity.

Locally grown hemp could reduce the cost of and importation from other countries and boost Hawai‘i’s economy, and it may be less environmentally degrading than other agricultural crops.

Ing and Thielen are urging supporters to sign a petition on Change.org that asks legislators to approve industrial hemp this session.

The proposal has been co-signed by more than 30 members of the House and is expected to be introduced in the Senate by Sen. Mike Gabbard (D- Kalaeloa-Makakilo).

by Deborah Higa, Ka ‘Ohana Staff Reporter